As was reported in the Washington Post today, "Scientists reported yesterday that they have uncovered a biological switch by which stress can promote obesity, a discovery that could help explain the world's growing weight problem and lead to new ways to melt flab and manipulate fat for cosmetic purposes.
In a series of experiments on mice, researchers showed that the neurochemical pathway they identified promotes fat growth in chronically stressed animals that eat the equivalent of a junk-food diet. Researchers found that laboratory mice subjected to daily stress and also fed a high-fat diet for a few weeks became obese. (Georgetown University Medical Center) The international team also showed that blocking those signals can prevent fat accumulation and shrink fat deposits and that stimulating the pathway can strategically create new deposits -- possibly offering new ways to remove fat as well as to mold youthful faces, firmer buttocks and bigger breasts.
"It's very exciting," said Zofia Zukowska of Georgetown University's Department of Physiology and Biophysics, who led the research, published online by the journal Nature Medicine. "This could be revolutionary.""
The study findings are being heavily reported in the media and most are highlighting the potential for pharmaceutical development, but few are talking about the real implications of the findings - can reduction of stress in real life lead to lower weight and a decreased risk of developing chronic disease?
Before I delve into that, first let's see what the researchers did in their experiments. The study was an animal model that involved mice. The researchers divided the mice into various groups - some ate a "normal" mouse diet, some ate a high fat, high sugar "junk-food" mouse diet. To see the effect of stress on the mice with each diet, some mice were highly stressed while others were allowed to carry on as mice do in their cages.
Unstressed mice consuming the "normal" diet did not gain weight.
Unstressed mice consuming the "junk food" diet did not gain weight.
Stressed mice consuming their "normal" diet did not gain weight.
Stressed mice consuming the "junk food" did gain weight.
This finding, especially if replicated in future studies, is critically important in our understanding of diet and health. This is because the findings showed that it was not diet alone that stimulated weight gain, nor was it stress alone. It was the specific combination of stress coupled with what researchers described as a "high-fat, high-sugar" diet that led to weight gain.
And not just any weight gain, but specifically fat accumulation in the belly - visceral fat; which we now understand is more detrimental to long-term health than subcutaneous fat which accumulates in places like the butt, thighs or arms. The stressed mice consuming a junk food diet also experienced glucose intolerance, elevated blood pressure, inflammation of the blood vessels and fat accumulation in the liver and in muscle tissue.
Simply put, they developed Metabolic Syndrome.
They did this not consuming excessive calories either - the researchers noted that the weight gain and fat accumulation in the stressed mice consuming the junk food diet was greater than expected given the calories consumed. Yet the mice consuming the same diet who were not stressed did not gain weight.
So it wasn't just the diet that mattered, it wasn't just stress that mattered; what mattered was the stress together with a junk food diet that conspired with each other to disrupt the production and pathways of neuropeptide Y (NPY).
Which leaves me wondering and pondering about many of the different dots still to be connected as we move forward to resolve the "obesity epidemic"...in the coming days I'm going to present additional data and studies to see what dots we might connect and what might be our solutions in the future.
I'll leave you with what Lou Shuler noted in his Male Pattern Fitness blog yesterday:
So, according to news reports, the "breakthrough" is a magic bullet that will selectively reduce fat deposits. Then there's some kind of opposite pill that will put fat on in selected places. If it works out in human experiments, somebody will make billions of dollars off these pills. I'm happy for them -- I wouldn't mind having some extra commas on my balance sheets -- but let's not forget that it'll be years before people will be able to use this chemical liposuction.
Meanwhile, anybody can stop eating junk food now. Today. The FDA doesn't have to give you permission to not enter the drive-through. The U.S. Patent Office doesn't have to put its seal on your decision not to supersize. It's here, it's free, it's open-source. It's dietary Linux. It doesn't discriminate by race, gender, religion, or income.
And it couldn't be simpler: All you have to do is eat something besides junk food.
It's so easy I couldn't even write a book about it. Chapter 1 tells you not to eat junk food. There is no chapter 2.
Why isn't that discovery being treated as the breakthrough, and the possibility of magic pills as an interesting sidebar?
Oh, yes - and as requested in emails while I was away, some pictures from our vacation:
Driving a boat on Norfork Lake, AR:
The big guy, with a mighty big fish:
My little guy, two months shy of his third birthday!